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  • Stephanie Kulke

Little Bear Ridge Road’ peers into the soul of a rural American family

“Why are TV shows so complicated these days? Not every goddamn moment in life is desperately urgent,” complains Sarah to nephew Ethan.


Complaining -- about TV shows, work, bills and groceries -- is the social lubrication that binds the Fernsby clan of rural Idaho. But what they won’t talk about is their feelings.


Samuel D. Hunter’s family drama “Little Bear Ridge Road” opens during the COVID-19 pandemic when Ethan Fernsby returns from Seattle to the outskirts of Moscow, Idaho. Estranged from his family, he arrives at his aunt Sarah’s to tell her he intends to put his recently deceased, meth-addicted father’s house up for sale. Sarah, a burned-out health care worker who never left home, tells Ethan the local housing market moves at a slow pace, but that he can stay with her until he’s finished his affairs.


The brusque and plain-spoken exchanges between the long separated Fernsbys provide a ton of humor throughout. It is a play tailor made for the explosive realism of the Steppenwolf ensemble which began with its production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” in 1982.


Hunter’s au courant take on the rural American family peers into the soul of the 21st -century’s economically precarious full-time wage workers. Sarah’s hospital has changed ownership and is scheduling her for fewer shifts. Ethan, who has completed an MFA in creative writing, quit his dispiriting bookstore job, and stopped writing when he realized he didn’t like his autofiction characters.


Director Joe Mantello’s simple staging puts the focus squarely on the ensemble who disappear spookily into their roles. The cast is led by Steppenwolf founding member Laurie Metcalf (furiously industrious, independent and opinionated as Sarah) and Micah Stock (whose halting rumble belies his brokenness as Ethan). John Drey plays James, the gentle, emotionally available astrophysicist Ethan meets on a dating app. Rounding out the cast is Meighan Gerachis with a small but crucial scene as nurse Paulette.


The spare setting is dominated by a sofa recliner on a carpeted stage. Props include little more than a vacuum cleaner. And yet, miraculously, worlds are suggested – from the immense Idaho night sky to a bar, to Aunt Sarah’s living room. What an actor like Metcalf can do alone on a nearly empty stage merely talking on the phone while running a dust buster is as thrilling as watching the Grand Prix.


When the sole remaining Fernsbys are forced to confront the desperate feelings under their stoicism – the moment is absolutely devastating. It is the kind of transcendent release that can only come when seeing live actors up close taking the ultimate risk of trust to reveal the depth of pain and longing in one human, while another reacts with their own raw, uniquely human response.  


As astrophysicist James points out, rural Idaho’s low light pollution makes it the perfect place to study the stars. Likewise, Hunter’s play, as embodied by this stellar, powerhouse cast, is the perfect vehicle to study the humanity of ordinary rural dwellers too often stereotyped in popular culture.


The play is as much about class as it is about family dysfunction. The comfortably well-off James brings class differences boiling to the surface. Ethan, who has never had a dime or a family member to fall back on has recently fled from an unbalanced relationship where generosity came with strings attached. And while James is exceedingly empathetic, Ethan blasts him for his deficiency in understanding how a casual offer of financial help comes across. Aunt Sarah also mocks James’ fragility, when he expresses the fear that his professors dislike him. “You seem like the kind of person who thinks people hate you unless they tell you otherwise,” says the woman for whom expressing sentimentality is not a thing.


An alternate title for this play could be “Look Back but Don’t Stare.” In returning home, Ethan catches a glimpse of the ways his damaged family showed him care in ways that he didn’t register when he was younger. He also comes to realize the pointlessness of expecting family to fill the void left by neglect, abuse and abandonment, and the need to look in more fruitful directions.


“Little Bear Ridge Road” feels important for the way it breaks down stereotypes of rural America. While independence, industry and bluntness may be common traits, not everyone is intolerant of diversity or lacks a college education. And despite Aunt Sarah’s spoken preference for the simpler TV plots of yore, it is the Sarahs and Ethans of this world who deserve a more complicated and nuanced treatment than contemporary culture provides.


Regardless of your geographic origins or class background, “Little Bear Ridge Road” will speak to anyone who has ever struggled with love, with family, or with finding inner stability.

“Little Bear Ridge Road” is playing at the Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theater at 1650 N. Halsted Street in Chicago, Tuesdays through Sundays through July 21, 2024

photo by Mike Brosilow

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